Three key concerns about Brexit talks

Brexit talks Image copyright EPA

David Davis will go back to Brussels on Thursday for the conclusion of the second round of official Brexit talks.

At his first photocall he set himself up for a bit of gentle mockery, being photographed without his notes, compared to the fat packets of EU documents on the table.

Jokes aside, if you talk to him or his team they say they are making good progress, that the negotiations are now properly under way, he is totally on top of his brief - move on, nothing to see here.

Last week he did also hint at a note of compromise in the air, outlining potential fixes on the prime minister's apparent red line (getting a bit pink these days?) on European judges, holding out the possibility of creating some kind of looser membership of the EU nuclear agency, Euratom, by "association".

Mr Davis's allies say that he is totally on top of his brief, and they are optimistic about getting things done in the timetable, although openly the government now admits that there will have to be a period of time for industries to adjust to the new realities.

There are 98 UK officials in Brussels this week, so there is certainly now a lot of brain power and civil service time and energy going into making it all work.

But talking to several different sources this week, who have been close to the talks, none of whom want to see them fail, some distinctly less optimistic signals have emerged. There is a long list of agenda items, inevitably, and it's complicated, but three broad issues have emerged.

1. There's a sense that the government has just not made enough of the big decisions to allow the talks to really get going. One source told me "I've got nothing to say" when talking to EU counterparts, because ministers haven't got to the stage yet of being clear about the detail of what they want. They are still focused on generalities rather than giving directions on the nitty gritty. On the Brexit "divorce bill" for example, I'm told the expectation across Whitehall is that it will be somewhere between 30 and 50 billion euros. But rather than the UK actually putting forward what they think might be acceptable, they are hanging back, rather than digging in.

2. There's concern the reticence is because Number 10, in particular, has just not made it clear what they actually want, and where the PM might be willing to compromise. One former minister, exasperated at the lack of progress, believes the only way this process can be salvaged is for the prime minister to start making it plain where she will budge and where she won't, to get on to the front foot, to lead. Their fear, that a shadow of her former self after the election, she doesn't have the political ability left to do so. There is frustration that ministers are still relying on tropes like "frictionless border", or "the days of paying vast sums are over", rather than pushing on with the details.

3. This lack of pace therefore makes, it's feared, the possibility of crashing out, or the talks breaking down in the autumn more likely. If the Tory party, and more importantly the public, aren't prepared by their leaders for what the eventual compromises could be, whether that is keeping some elements of freedom of movement to guard against economic problems, paying tens of billions to keep trading inside the single market, seeing planes unable to fly across Europe or Chinese ships dock at Tilbury if the deals have not been concluded, they could face a very heavy political price. Senior Tories are well aware that if they mess this up they could be punished for generations.

These concerns are not raised by sources because of pessimism about Brexit, or a desire for the whole thing to be stopped.

There is plenty of that around SW1, but this isn't it.

There are clearly massive opportunities for the UK outside the EU, and huge potential for a different and successful prognosis.

But inside government there are fears about the capability of the machine to manage the process without falling short.

Whether David Davis took his notes to his meeting with Michel Barnier or not, is not really the point.

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